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On the Media: Newt Gingrich’s odd take on presidential debates

In casting Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, you had plenty of aspirants for the role of stalwart chief executive, notably frontrunners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Michele Bachmann played “tea party” ingenue and Ron Paul the libertarian puritan. So what job remained for one-time House Speaker Newt Gingrich, struggling to stand out on a stage crowded with eight candidates?

How about Chief Media Basher?

It may have amounted to a bit part, but one offering scene-stealing opportunity, especially given that the event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley was being broadcast by MSNBC. The liberal-tilting cable network gave the also-ran Gingrich the perfect foil, the chance to play Republican Party uniter, to “work the refs” prior to Monday’s next GOP debate (sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express) and — who knows? — maybe begin laying the groundwork for his next book.

If it is remembered at all, Gingrich’s moment on the debate stage will be recalled (it’s already been celebrated by multiple conservative commentators) for an attack on Politico’s John Harris for violating what the former speaker seems to believe is a foundational truth: that debates must not draw out differences among candidates.

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That proposition, if nonsensical, is savory and familiar raw meat for the GOP base. Gingrich’s pronouncement that the questioners wanted to divide Republicans and “protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated” drew perhaps the loudest roar from fans seated beneath Air Force One in the library auditorium.

Maybe I missed a rule change from some higher authority. But isn’t this entire, cumbersome, protracted and mightily observed primary-election process designed to expose and explain differences among a party’s candidates? Is there any other way to help voters decide which product to finally pull off the shelf? (Well, probably. But this is the system we are stuck with, for now.)

Yet Gingrich and a sizable pack of post-debate bloginators renewed the tedious quadrennial rite of scorning the questioner. Obviously, given MSNBC’s well-deserved reputation for liberal political commentary, the guest hosts must be part of the plot. Never mind that NBC anchor Brian Williams and his co-pilot, Harris, have both spent long careers distinguishing themselves in ways having nothing to do with ideology.

This raises many questions: Did these complainers sleep through the last several presidential campaigns? Don’t any of them recall how the media, to take just the most recent instance, spent months glorying in every possible distinction between dueling Sens. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton? Have political debates, three years later, been redesignated as “friending” circles?

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You would think so to listen to the undeniably clever and opportunistic Gingrich. From his first answer, he made clear he would be school-marming the debate moderators, while playing shamelessly to the partisan gallery.

Asked about writing the forward for Perry’s book “Fed Up!” — which outlines the Texas governor’s serious doubts about the constitutionality and righteousness of all sorts of federal programs, including Social Security — Gingrich wouldn’t bite. “Look, he’s said himself that was an interesting book of ideas by somebody who’s not proposing a manifesto for president,” Gingrich said. “And I think to go back and try to take that apart is silly.”

Thus, Gingrich’s new debating rules would command: Would-be presidents should not have to answer for their previous scribblings, even ones they wrote as visions of the Oval Office may have danced through their heads.

Later, he moved again to straighten out Williams. In response to a question about Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke (whom Gingrich pledged he would fire “tomorrow”), the candidate pivoted to a question from a previous debate. “We were asked the wrong question at the last debate,” he said. “The question isn’t, would we favor a tax increase? The question is, how would we generate revenue?”

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Gingrich said the conversation should be about cutting government and opening vast tracts of Alaska to gas and oil extraction. Never mind that many economists and public-opinion surveys would seem to put some tax increases (for higher-income earners) on the table for most Americans. We now have Gingrich’s second rule of refined Republican debating: No more questions about higher taxes. Ever.

He saved his third rule, and sharpest barb, for Harris, the longtime political writer and co-founder of Politico.com who suggested that Romney and Perry had “a genuine philosophical disagreement” over healthcare. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney passed a reform that required residents to buy health insurance. Perry and other Republicans have designated such a “mandate,” a key to President Obama’s national healthcare law, as the sort of big-government solution that is anathema to economic recovery and American values.

Harris asked Gingrich to weigh in on the side of Romney’s Massachusetts plan or the small-government approach in Texas, where more than a quarter of residents are uninsured, according to a recent Times report. “Well, I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other,” Gingrich snapped. He huffed that Republicans would “repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated.” Rule three: the media should never expect one Republican to speak ill of another.

Forget the tough precedent of past debates, like candidate Obama being asked to explain the flame-throwing pastor he worshiped with and even the flag lapel pin he had eschewed. Forget that these primary season debates, in particular, tend to produce palaver and talking points and questioners desperate to cut through both. Forget that Speaker Newt is so far out of the running that he has to play to one of the sorriest old retreads in the political game — “the media’s picking on my team.”

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Speaking on Fox Business News the morning after the debate, anchor Chris Wallace called out Gingrich for his tired “attack the messenger” stunt. “If he thinks that works, fine,” Wallace said. “I find it kind of sad.”

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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